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David Halberstam’s Hit Streak Continues

For nearly forty years, David Halberstam has been writing about America's history by examining the people who make it.

David HalberstamIn The Fifties, we met Oppenheimer and Ray Kroc, MacArthur and Nixon; also Kemmons Wilson, who placed his Holiday Inns along the nation's roadsides, and "Goody" Pincus, who led the team that invented the Pill. In The Children, Halberstam delivered a portrait of the Civil Rights movement through the lens of eight black students who came together as part of Reverend James Lawson's workshops in the 1960s. War in a Time of Peace bore the appropriate subtitle, "Bush, Clinton, and the Generals." And in Firehouse, the author profiled the men of Manhattan's Engine 40, Ladder 35, twelve of whom gave their lives to the rescue efforts at Ground Zero on September 11th.

For all his writing on national affairs, Halberstam has earned an equally distinguished place among American sportswriters. In athletics, he finds another revealing window on our culture.

In The Teammates, the author revisits four members of the 1940s Boston Red Sox—Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, and Bobby Doerr—who became friends at the start of their professional careers and remained close through fifty ensuing years off the field. In October 2001, with Williams confined to a wheelchair, Pesky and DiMaggio embarked on a three-day, 1,300-mile road trip down the east coast to see their friend one last time. That visit served as the inspiration for Halberstam's portrait.

"It's a baseball book, but it's not a baseball book," the Pulitzer Prize winner explains. "It's a book about aging and friendship. Ultimately, it's a book about love."

Dave: You'd written about these four players previously, in Summer of '49, but The Teammates focuses as much on their lives outside of baseball as it does on their playing days. Where did you get the idea to write about them this way?

David Halberstam: About fifteen months ago, I had a lecture in Palm Beach. I went a day early in order to have dinner with Dominic and Emily DiMaggio. I've stayed in touch with them since doing Summer of '49, and I very much value that friendship. At the dinner, Dominic started telling the story of the pilgrimage that he and John Pesky and Dick Flavin had made to see Ted. (Bobby Doerr, the other member of that group couldn't make it because he's in Oregon and he tends to his wonderful wife, Monica, who has had significant health problems.)

Dominic told the story of the last visit to see Ted, and how in the last couple months this wonderful, vital, energetic man had broken down. He was frail and in a wheelchair. Dominic had sung to him, and Ted had begun to come back alive.

Four guys on one team for their whole careers, essentially—three with only one team and John with cameo appearances in Washington and Detroit. These were all Boston guys. Because of free agency and big money and social changes, that will never happen again. And these men stayed friends, in the case of Bob and Ted, sixty-five years.

I thought it could be an extraordinary story of not just baseball but friendship, and the book has turned out to be very much what I had hoped. Sometimes you start a book and it changes direction, the book has an orbital path of its own, but this book came out very much the way I intended.

Dave: Early in the book, you quote Ted Williams. He's talking about Dominic getting Paget's disease:

Dommy's got this goddamn awful disease, and it makes him bend way over. It's a real mean son of a bitch of a disease, but he's the proudest goddamn human being you ever met. Anyone else with a goddamn disease like that loses dignity. Not Dommy.

Even before you identified Williams as the speaker, I knew he was the one talking. I could recognize his voice in the cadence of the speech, and of course there was the familiar blue streak in the language.

Halberstam: Whatever plusses and minuses there were to Ted Williams, he was not a passive person. He brought energy. He brought excitement. Ted was supercharged. He had to be the best. He had to win. He had to win an argument, he had to win a baseball game, he had to be the best hitter ever.

Dave: He took a real interest in Joe DiMaggio when Joe's health began to fail. But they hadn't been friends. It was never a friendship exactly...

Halberstam: It wasn't a friendship, but it's an interesting thing. The book is really, among other things, a book about mortality. You see these men, they're young, and they're great athletes—they're boys, almost, and they seem indestructible. Then, like everyone else, they go through an aging process, except we mostly remember them as being young and immortal. The book talks at some length about their baseball careers but also notes that the next fifty years of their lives are as important as the baseball part.

Ted and Joe were not close. Joe did not let many people cross the moat. He was a very isolated and self-isolating man, whereas Ted was infinitely more gregarious. Ted probably would have loved to have been a friend of his and take him fishing, but that wasn't going to happen. Joe was going to be off golfing or whatever.

They are linked in their careers to an age, and to a million debates about which one was better, then an additional million debates about what would have happened had DiMaggio played in Fenway and Williams in Yankee Stadium, with the short right field porch. They're linked by all these baseball dinners and banquets and by the box scores and debates. As Joe's health begins to break down and he is probably dying, Ted becomes acutely aware of it and becomes very engaged. He starts calling Dominic, with whom he's remained close all these years, wanting every day to know, What is it? Whatever's happening with Joe, it resonates for Ted as well.

Dave: Even if you know nothing about Johnny Pesky's playing career, most fans in Boston would know him as the man for whom Pesky's Pole is named.

Halberstam: There's a foul pole named after him, that's right, the short right field line, and the ball hooks around it...

If you had a word game, word association, and someone said, "John Pesky," the word that would come up is sweetness. There's a little boy who still lives in him, an ingénue. He grew up here in Portland. He was a kid hanging around the ballpark. He came from Croatian parents; his parents did not speak English at the table. He got this one ticket, which was to play ball, and he took it.

He thinks he's really very lucky. He's had a great, rich life, and he's done well. He never made a lot of money, but everybody loves him. I have all kinds of friends, not necessarily sportswriters, but they've done different pieces on the Red Sox, traveling or whatever, and the thing they will all tell you is how nice Johnny Pesky was to them. He's always open, always interested. There's an utter absence of malice, a lack of pretense, a lack of any sense of entitlement. The word I come back to is sweetness. Then of course they named a pole after him.

Dave: Of the four friends, I knew the least about Bobby Doerr—just that he played the infield, his number is retired, and he's in the Hall of Fame.

Halberstam: He was a beautiful player to watch. He was so smooth and fluid, it was as if he was born to play second base. And he was a very good hitter.

And if you're doing the same word game, goodness and decency come up. He is about as nice a man as you will ever meet. He is gracious. He is not impressed with the idea of being Bobby Doerr. There's an innate modesty to him. He's a pleasure to deal with. And I think he was very important to Ted for a very long time because he was as balanced in his view of life as Ted was volatile.

Dave: The four men at the center of the story played major league baseball together, but it's not so much a baseball book.

Halberstam: It's a baseball book, but it's not a baseball book. It's a book about aging and friendship. Ultimately, it's a book about love.

There's a moment as you age where friendship turns into love. You look back at your life and you think, Oh, we did that together. We were young. We did it pretty well. How lucky and privileged we were to have done it and to have been each other's friends. That's very much the way I've begun to think in the last couple of years about my own time when I was very young, more than forty years ago in Vietnam, and I think it's the way these men think about themselves and their friendships and their careers. Who won a particular game, who did or did not get a hit or win a batting title, that begins to become less important. What you're left with is the texture of friendship and affection and, finally, love.

Dave: Forty years ago, or thereabouts, in 1964, you were just back from Vietman. Years later, that autumn would become the focus of one of your baseball books, October 1964.

Halberstam: The first time I came back, I'd been out of the country for about three and a half years in the Congo and in Vietnam, and I hadn't seen the changes in baseball. The Mickey Mantle era was coming to an end in '64. The Yankees had gone from DiMaggio to Mantle, lasting from the thirties all the way into the sixties, but it was coming to an end. There was this surging Cardinal team with these great young black ballplayers. I hadn't followed the National League—I'm kind of an American League guy—so I watched that series and I'm thinking, Who is Bob Gibson? Who is Lou Brock? Who is Curt Flood? Who is Bill White? This is a really good baseball team. They beat the Yankees in the seventh game, and I thought, Oh boy, something's happened. The Cardinals were ascending and the Yankees were unraveling and getting old.

Dave: Your "sports" books are about much broader subjects than the games and players. The intersection of sport and culture...

Halberstam: The books are about society and history and cultural change.

Summer of '49 is a book about the end of the radio era. These guys grow up in a simpler America. They grow up in the Depression. None of them can go to college. They play baseball in the daytime, on grass, for the owner who has total control. It's broadcast on radio. They travel by train. Washington is a southern city; St. Louis is a far western one.

October 1964 is midway to the present. Blacks have begun to come into the league. There were almost none in '49; By 1964, blacks are on the ascent. The 727 has come along, so you have expansion to the west coast. You travel by plane. You have more and more night baseball. Curt Flood is leaving St. Louis eventually and challenging the Reserve Clause. The cover of Sports Illustrated has the entire Cardinal starting team on it, saying that the cumulative salary is a million dollars and How could this happen? Is this the end of Western Civilization as we know it?

These books reflect how we change and how outside forces—money, labor laws, television, technology—affect who we are as a society and to some degree the games as well.

Dave: Broadcasting is one of the most significant factors, obviously. Earlier this week, the FCC ruled that large broadcasting corporations will be allowed to become even bigger.

Halberstam: Not exactly what we needed in this society.

Dave: In The Next Century, you wrote: "As the network news format trivializes political debate, the political system adapts to it. Serious discussion of serious issues is too complicated." That statement could be applied any number of recent events, including the most recent presidential election.

Halberstam: And very much to our political system now. It's really very trivialized.

Dave: Where does that leave us?

Halberstam: We're an entertainment society. We want to be entertained more than we want to think. It's a serious problem. We're the most powerful nation in the world, but our network broadcast is increasingly about celebrity, sex, and scandal. It's less about substance than it used to be. It's not as good as it should be. And it makes us a more volatile society.

We pay very little attention to the rest of the world, then when the rest of the world doesn't act in concert with us and salute us, we're very angry. We think, How could this happen? Why don't they like us more? We're not paying very much attention.

Dave: In War in a Time of Peace, you discuss George Bush Sr.'s reluctance to celebrate too much in public when the Berlin Wall came down because he didn't want to show up Gorbachev. Contrast that to George W.'s photo op on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln after the war in Iraq. It's night and day.

Halberstam: The father was from a different generation. He'd worked in partnership with the then-Soviet leader, and he didn't want to embarrass him. He possibly even paid a little bit of a price politically for not being exploitive. Then his son flies in to an aircraft carrier right after the war.

It's sort of puzzling to me. I don't want to get too political now, but it seems to me that it was the wrong message. People know that we're powerful. Having the President of the United States come in like a jet jockey on a carrier is not the kind of signal I think you want to give to the rest of the world. They know we're powerful. They know we have a lot of airpower. I was very uneasy with that, and I thought it was sort of exploitive of those who had actually gone to Iraq on the part of someone who had not served, unlike his father who went into the service as the youngest naval pilot. I thought it was, on the part of the President's handlers, a significant overreach.

Dave: What did you think about embedding the journalists in Iraq?

Halberstam: I thought it was a good thing. In contrast to Gulf War I, where the controls were draconian and there was really an unacceptable shutdown, I thought this was an improvement. It was a good idea to get journalists out there. I had a lot of faith, because of Vietnam, in what happens when young American journalists are with young American fighters, that each will tell the truth and be respectful.

I think it worked pretty well. When something good happened, they would report it. And when something bad happened... We're not talking about debating the policy; we're talking about what's happening on the ground.

I did not think the media did very well in general because I don't think they engaged in meaningful debate before the war started. There was too much of an acceptance of our government's position and not a lot of ventilating the issues and giving contrasting viewpoints. Nightline and a few other places did it, but generally not the more powerful media.

Dave: What does Bill Clinton's future look like?

Halberstam: It's a very limited one. He can't run for the Presidency again, though he wants to, I'm told. It's a voice, but it's a limited voice. He can't run, therefore the more attention he gets, the more he subtracts from other Democratic candidates. I presume what he's thinking of is his own wife's campaign.

Dave: And what do you make of that?

Halberstam: Well, I think there's a Clinton family decision that she will try to run for the Presidency. I don't think they will look for it in 2004. I think they believe the wind is blowing the wrong way, but it's very much part of the larger agenda. I think there will be a Hillary Clinton campaign.

Dave: Firehouse is an extraordinary book, and it must have been a very personal one for you to research and write.

Halberstam: They're wonderful men, and it was such a tragic day. We live in New York on the west side of Manhattan, right near Lincoln Center, three and a half blocks from the local firehouse where on the morning of September 11th two rigs went out with thirteen men on them, and twelve died. I went over and did this little book called Firehouse on it.

I'm just very drawn to the sacrifice of those men. Not just the men who died, but the other men. I'm very impressed by the commitment of their lives, the sense that they think there's something larger than them. When I was in Vietnam, when people carried buddies off the battlefield, they were carrying a buddy. Here, it is risking your life for utter strangers, which seems to me quite extraordinary.

Dave: And somewhat counter to developments in the culture in general.

Halberstam: Well, sitting there, working at the firehouse and interviewing people in those days, and hearing as we did—the timing was exact—hearing about the Enron scandal, which was the exact opposite... The people in charge screwed the people underneath. Even as they were stealing and robbing the till, they made sure the ordinary people who worked for them couldn't get hold of their money. It was really a disgusting story. The contrast in value systems was overwhelming.

Dave: At a coffee shop recently, I saw four young women sitting around a table with copies of The Fifties opened in front of them. They were reading it for a Contemporary American History course. The professor had assigned it because he thought it was an effective tool to discuss much of what's happening in America today.

Halberstam: It shows a much simpler America, but all kinds of things that begin to come to fruition in the rather more turbulent sixties are seeded in the fifties and grow from there, whether it's the Vietnam War, the women's movement, with contraception, or the coming of television, which speeds up our life. All these things that eventually make us a superpower and a driven, affluent society begin in that period.

So the contrast... It's a little like what I was saying about Summer of '49, about the slowness of pace of that moment. It's radio instead of television, white society instead of a diverse society, the coming of Brown versus Board of Education. All this stuff begins in the fifties.

It's a book that has an uncommon life. Every year, it sells more in paperback than almost any book I've done. It's very big in all these book clubs where twelve people get together and read a book. It has a very good college life in different classes, more than other books I've done, because I think it offers a window on an era that is not so regularly written about. There isn't that much writing about the fifties, per se, in the way that I've done it.

Dave: As opposed to the forties, with the war, and the sixties, with another war and the counterculture and everything else.

Halberstam: The forties gets taken over and the sixties gets written about a lot. And there are some rather good books on it, including a book by a guy named William O'Neil called Coming Apart, which I think is quite good.

The fifties is an underreported era because it's not a media era. Television was just coming of age. There's not much written about the Korean War because there was no television; therefore the appetite, in contrast to Vietnam, is rather marginal.

Dave: And now you're working on a book about the Korean War?

Halberstam: I'm midway through a book on a battle in the Korean War in November 1950. I've been wanting to do it for a long time, and I've been working on it for about a year and a half, with some interruptions to do this and other books.

Dave: There's a line near the beginning of The Fifties: "In that era of general good will and expanding affluence, few Americans doubted the essential goodness of their country."

Have we changed so completely, or is our cynicism more pronounced because people have countless opportunities to vocalize dissent?

Halberstam: We're a much more skeptical country now. That was a country that just came out of World War II, which was a good war. The media was not much given to challenging the varying norms. Rather than actually being a superpower, we were on the ascent to becoming one. We felt very good about ourselves and how the war had gone, not just the outcome and defeating two rather dark forces in the world, but the degree to which it had catapulted us to this new role. That role was a little bit awkward and we were just trying it out. For a variety of reasons, we're more self-skeptical as a society now. This is a moment in time when the media is rather frail. We're generally more self-critical.

Dave: You've written a lot about Japan in the past. Their economy has been struggling for a while now.

Halberstam: They've been awfully flat for about ten years. They had this great run that brought them significant economic power, and then it just flattened out.

Maybe they don't have the domestic market they need, but they've been stuck, and part of it is that the new economy is not a blue collar, industrial economy. In the new economy, education and originality in the high technology world is vastly more important, if you're on the cutting edge, than just a manufacturing line. With our particular educational system, we do significantly better. Their education is much more about learning things by rote.

One of their most distinguished public officials, a man who was very helpful to me when I was there, Naohiro Amaya, was a great critic of the Japanese educational system because so much was done by rote. That's in contrast to an American system where, whatever our failings, our best students are critical and use their minds. He said the terrible thing about the way the Japanese were educating their people was that at the end of four years of college everything that their best students knew could be replicated by a computer. It wasn't about thought processes, it was about memorization, and that, I think, has been a problem for them.

Dave: You interview many people each time you write a book. How does that fit into your writing process? Do you record the conversations? Do you take notes by hand?

Halberstam: I take notes. I write in longhand as they talk. If they're going too fast, I try to slow them down. Then at the end of it, when the interview is over, I take the notes and I go back to my room or my home and I dictate the notes into a cassette. Then I have a friend who is retired type up the notes for me. It's great.

I would say the average interview is an hour and a half or two hours, and I end up with five or six pages of single-spaced notes, which is a great distillation. My interviews with Bobby Doerr may have been thirty pages of single-spaced notes because we did two days and really went at it. They're comparable with Dominic and some of the others in this book.

It's a very good way to do it, I think, the particular system. When I talk to young people who are going into book writing, I tell them what I do because I think it means that when you finally get to write you have very good notes.

I had a friend named Tom Griffith, who was for a long time a managing editor of Life magazine, and late in life he wrote a nonfiction book about Henry Luce and Teddy White. He asked to see my notes where they're kept at Boston University. He also went to see Teddy White's notes. He came back and he said, "Teddy kept the worst notes I've ever seen. You have the best notes I've ever seen. Your notes are just marvelous." They're all typed up, interview by interview.

Dave: In terms of the process, gathering and incorporating notes for The Teammates strikes me as manageable, but several of your books are very long and cover a massive scale of events. At what point do those interviews enter the narrative? Do you collect all the notes before you start writing the book?

Halberstam: Not entirely. We have a house in Nantucket, and what I used to do is as it was getting toward summer, say it was April or May, I would go very hard researching a particular section early in the book so that in summer I could write. Then I would come off Nantucket and go back to doing legwork.

Now, I've been writing books sort of full-time for thirty-four years. One of the things that has changed it is the coming of the computer, which is a great asset. In the old days, if you wrote a page, then you did an interview later and you had a new anecdote, you had to type everything over. Now you can splice something in, so the computer has made my life infinitely easier. You're interviewing hoping to get enough stuff to do a little writing periodically. With the knowledge that you can always add stuff now, the computer makes it easy.

David Halberstam visited Powell's on June 4, 2003, prior to his reading at the First Unitarian Church downtown.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Coldest Winter: America and the...
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  2. The Breaks of the Game
    Used Trade Paper $9.00
  3. The Education of a Coach Used Trade Paper $4.95
  4. The Children Used Trade Paper $8.50
  5. The Fifties
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  6. War in a Time of Peace: Bush,... Used Trade Paper $5.50
  7. October 1964
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  8. Summer of '49 Used Trade Paper $4.95
  9. Firehouse
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  10. The Teammates: A Portrait of Friendship
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  11. October 1964
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  12. Summer of '49 Used Trade Paper $4.95
  13. Firehouse
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  14. War in a Time of Peace: Bush,... Used Trade Paper $5.50
  15. The Children Used Hardcover $11.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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